Around the country, the use of solar power has been growing by leaps and bounds. In states like Massachusetts and California, solar is sold door to door, and it is as common to see work vans for solar contractors as it is to see plumbers, heating contractors, or electricians.

This growth has been fueled by a decline in the cost of solar equipment and state policies that encourage modernization of the grid. We are watching a significant transformation from an electrical grid based on large, centralized power plants to a more distributed and responsive network of small solar electrical generators, smart appliances, electrical storage, and electric vehicles. These changes serve to make the grid cleaner, more efficient, less prone to spikes in electricity prices, and less susceptible to major interruptions of grid power.

Maine ratepayers have seen their electrical rates increase — even as electrical supply rates have been decreasing — because of the cost to expand our transmission and distribution infrastructure. As a result, solutions that can reduce the need to build more power lines can help to stabilize energy costs for our state. Increasing the use of solar would reduce costs within our distribution network.

For homeowners and business owners, choosing to generate electricity instead of remaining at the whim of the electrical utilities is becoming increasingly attractive. The price drop for solar has been staggering. Today, a customer in Maine can install solar for roughly half of what it cost in 2012.

The more that solar is installed, the more likely it is that someone nearby will opt to go solar as well. A 2015 study published by researchers at Yale University and the University of Connecticut concluded that the most influential factor in a household’s decision to buy solar is whether someone else in the neighborhood had a system on their house. It seems that buying solar is contagious.

This phenomenon makes sense. As is seen in many other state, a majority of Mainers support the continued and expanded use of solar. That said, we are also infamous for being deliberate adopters of new technologies. Good Yankees are leery of sales pitches and new, shiny objects. But once things prove their worth, we are quick to utilize them. Seeing and hearing about a neighbor’s success with a less utilized technology like solar energy gives a substantial nudge to those who have been thinking about making a similar investment.

Of course, Mainers are also known to be tightwads. Doing without for another week to save a nickel is common practice for many traditional households. It’s an approach that has served us well during lean times and buffered us in changing economic times.

A common refrain for a frugal Mainer considering solar is “I’m going to wait until prices drop even further.” With the trend of steep price declines over the past decade, it is a reasonable consideration.

The cost of installing solar is not the only piece of the value equation. Last summer, Consumer Reports tackled the quandary of when to buy. The author came to this conclusion:

“Those who want to wait on the sidelines for further price reductions could be disappointed: The cost of solar panels has started to plateau and, while installation labor and other soft costs continue to fall, the phasing out of state tax incentives and utility rebates and grants has largely offset those savings… getting your deal done before new regulations are implemented could save you hundreds of dollars each year.”

 

This advice cuts deep in Maine in light of the Public Utilities Commission’s recent decision to change Maine’s net metering rules. The new rules will decrease compensation to future solar customers and increase installation costs for many homes and businesses that opt to install solar. The rules impact solar customers who install solar after Dec. 31, 2017, setting up a significant incentive this year for those who have been considering solar to pull the trigger.

There is some hope that the Legislature could fix this decision before the new rules are implemented. Solar supporters, the governor’s office, the utilities, and those concerned with the impact on all ratepayers have all voiced displeasure with the real world consequences of the PUC’s new rules.

To ensure that local homeowners and businesses have a greater opportunity to secure solar in 2017, the Sustain Mid Maine Coalition is collaborating with Insource Renewables of Pittsfield to coordinate a bulk purchasing program in the greater Waterville area. Solarize Mid Maine aims to help folks navigate the options that are available in Maine’s current policy climate and seeks to catalyze the type of growth that other areas of the country are experiencing.

For more information on the program, visit www.solarizemidmaine.com or call (207) 619-4901.

This piece was written by members of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Energy Team. John Reuthe is the team leader.